“What are you laughing at?”

I bet you’ve heard sayings such as Laughter is the fastest way to connect two hearts, or Laughter is the best medicine before. Humor and laughter is a big part of any culture, but can vary in format, and language.

In Denmark, the humour is very dark like the winter, and at times complicated to translate. The British humour is known all around the world for being brutally honest and dry. The American humour consists of many elements, such as sarcasm and friendly insults. Humor is complex and different from every country.

Expressions, sayings and communication all contain elements of humour. getting an understanding the humour can help you learn the language faster.

As a foreigner in China, getting to understand the humour can bring you closer to the community, get you new friends and it might even prevent you from stepping on someone’s toes.

We’ve all been through the physical Chinese culture shock. From when you first experience the chaotic state on your morning commute on the metro, to all the wonderful flavours of the Chinese cuisine. In a state where nearly being run down by a guy on a scooter has become everyday life.

This article is for everyone, whether you’ve been in China for years, or just got here. You might laugh at the familiarities, and recognize some of the observations from your on life. Or you might learn a new thing or two. Smile and laughter are one of the best ways to communicate, but being the foreign guy that makes a joke, which then silences the whole room, is no fun!

Humour is based on history

Many westerners find Chinese humour strange, some might even say that Chinese people don’t have a sense of humour.  That of course, is not the case. On the contrary Chinese humour is not much different than western.

Cultural references and specific language expression often cause misunderstandings, thus leading to an all too well-known situation where on part end up having to explain the joke step by step, thus ruining all the fun. Taking that into consideration, AND adding Mandarin, which is toned based creates a challenge for even the experienced expat.

What is Chinese humour?

Chinese humour is a complex combination of linguistic, sounds, and intonations (Tones).  where they usually revolve around a surprising aspect, or an unsuspected twist, where as Chinese humour usually revolves around the meaning of the words.

1-Cold Jokes

Having lived in China for a while, or being around your Chinese friends, and colleagues you might have heard a cold joke or two. The concept is to get a deadpan or awkward reaction from the crowd, a cold shivering sensation due to the low quality of the joke. Hence the term, a “Cold joke”. The jokes are not meant to be funny, but more to shock the audience.

An example of a cold joke could be:

“Teacher: What do you call a person who keeps on talking when people are no longer interested?

Pupil: A teacher.”


2-Sarcasm, and how it varies

A big misconception is that Chinese people don’t get sarcasm. You’ve probably heard, or even experienced it on your own saying something sarcastic, but the receiving person took it literally. Chinese humour and everyday conversation are packed with sarcasm and irony. Sarcasm is often used to talk about a taboo subject and problems in society.

3-Physical humour is not considered funny

Chinese humour is based on explicit meanings and linguistic, while western humour sometimes relies on a physical reaction, the performance by the actor or gets in an embarrassing situation, is not popular in China. They hit to close to home, and might have a relation to the concept of losing face.

Chinese TV-shows often deliberately make a big effort to separate real life situations from the acts on the show.

As we previously stated, humour is one of the simplest ways to communicate, whether it’s all physical to begin with, getting more playful the more experienced you get. But taboos exist in all cultures, some more touchy than others.

Don’t even go there!

1-Personal life

Joking about someone’s private life. Whether it is about love, or family related, certain topics are considered very private and will be met with awkward silence. Even among friends, a touchy subject can be seen as inappropriate. Stay clear of that path if you’re just getting to know someone, some might be a little more loose, so get a sense of the setting before asking someone if there wife is a great kisser…

2-The Chinese government – Culture wise it’s inappropriate

A cliché or not, depending on the settings. Joking about the Chinese government can be considered rude, or inappropriate in certain settings. Especially when you’re a foreigner. Consider this.  A way too confident tourist just start slandering your favourite football team, I would be getting stingy too.

Whit that said, Chinese people often use humour to discuss taboo, and political subjects. But use common sense, thread carefully before you start criticizing a different culture.

3-Losing face, make a fool of yourself

Stay away from subjects about diulian (丢脸 -diū liǎn), losing face, or saving face. In Asian culture, reputation, dignity, and honour are valued higher. For some, it is considered a personal tragedy losing self-respect among westerners, but in Asian culture causing someone to lose face in front of others will make the person incredibly ashamed, and cause a bad atmosphere. Causing someone to lose respect of ones peers is considered a big insult in Asian culture.

Knowing how to make someone laugh is the quickest way to ones heart, or is it through the stomach… Nonetheless, understanding, and being a part of the joke around you is crucial to making new friends, or becoming a part of the local community. Worst-case scenario, you might end up hurting someone’s feelings because you said something that is considered inappropriate.

We hope this article brought some insight into the characteristics of Chinese humour, and hopefully, you’ll be able to laugh with your colleagues, or friends the next time someone says a funny joke.

Are you interested in learning more about Chinese culture? See our article about “Easy Ways To Communicate in Chinese” or “ Experience the winter wonders of Harbin“. Are you already packed and ready for a new adventure? Get in touch with our program consultants and start the process. Apply for free, and start asking a question. Apply here